RICHLAND COUNTY — Attorney General Alan Wilson will not be required to answer questions about what has happened under his watch with the estate and education charity of entertainment legend James Brown.
In an order filed Oct. 5 in Richland County, Circuit Judge Doyet Early granted Wilson’s motion that he not be deposed in Richland 4900, a multi-million dollar lawsuit brought by former Attorney General Henry McMaster and others in July 2010 and continued by AG Wilson since he took office in January 2011.
The Sept. order “barring the taking of the deposition” from AG Wilson follows on the heels of June 14 rulings by Judge Early that exempted AG Wilson from providing James Brown documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The June FOIA orders are now under appeal.
In 2011 former Brown trustee Adele Pope of Newberry requested several documents from AG Wilson, which he refused to provide. She filed two FOIA lawsuits in her home county of Newberry. In unprecedented rulings, both FOIA suits were transferred to Richland County and one was consolidated with the private tort action Richland 4900.
The AG requested a stay of the Richland 4900 FOIA lawsuit, and both languished in Richland County before being assigned to Judge Early earlier this year. He dismissed the lawsuits without a hearing by ruling that when Pope was sued by the AG and others, she lost her FOIA rights as a citizen and must follow the rules of discovery to obtain the documents from AG Wilson.
The rules of discovery include the taking of depositions, which AG Wilson can now avoid under Judge Early’s October order.
The FOIA allows citizens to gain access to public documents “at a minimum of cost or delay.” The 2011 FOIA suits were delayed five years, and obtaining the documents through discovery can be expensive.
The FOIA lawsuits are now in the South Carolina Court of Appeals, but Pope has requested that they be transferred to the South Carolina Supreme Court. In a letter to the Court, AG Wilson wrote that he did not oppose the transfer. There is no precedent for the consolidation of a FOIA lawsuit with a private tort action, nor is there a precedent in a civil case for a citizen being stripped of FOIA rights because of a lawsuit brought against the citizen by a public official.
The Attorney General is the public official responsible for enforcing the FOIA.
There is no precedent for Richland 4900, either. Never before in South Carolina has the AG sued a private citizen in a private action, acting only through a private attorney. The Wingate law firm of Columbia represents the AG and other plaintiffs in Richland 4900.
Adele Pope of Newberry and Robert Buchanan were co-trustees of the Brown estate from late 2007 to mid 2009. When Brown died in 2006, his music empire—including 850+ songs and rights to his image—was left to his education charity, the “I Feel Good” trust.
His will was contested by several claimed relatives, despite a clause that said: anyone who contests, receives nothing. Former AG McMaster worked a settlement deal that gave to will contestants over half of what Brown left to his charity, and the settlement was appealed by Pope and Buchanan because it did not follow Brown’s estate plan.
The Supreme Court overturned the McMaster settlement in 2013, calling it a “dismemberment” of Brown’s estate plan.
In the Richland 4900 complaint, the AG and will contestants allege Pope and Buchanan caused “tens of millions” in damages by not accepting a $100 million offer for Brown’s assets. The next year, however, AG Wilson told the South Carolina Supreme Court that Brown’s music empire was worth only $4.7 million, and there had been no offers to buy it.
The estate also filed documents with the IRS that claimed the at-death value of Brown’s music empire—including the copyrights and rights to his image—was $4.7 million. Yet, in the July before Brown died in December 2006, the Royal Bank of Scotland was willing to loan Brown $42 million on the royalties alone, without the rights to his image.
The $4.7 million appraisal and supporting documents used as the basis for the IRS filing were among the documents Pope requested in her FOIA lawsuits.
Under Judge Early’s June ruling, AG Wilson does not have to provide the appraisal under FOIA, and under his October order, AG Wilson will not have to be deposed about what has happened with the Brown estate and charity in the almost six years he has been pursuing Richland 4900, arguing before the Supreme Court on behalf of the McMaster settlement, and monitoring the administration of the estate.
The 2015 accounting for the estate has still not yet been filed with the Aiken Probate Court, nor has an extension been requested.